Part One: The Game.
Last night, as Number3Son and I sat in the rec room (that Theater of Dreams where I have watched so many Kentucky games) waiting for the national championship game to begin, something happened that I cannot remember in all my years as a fan. I am a petulant, nervous fan, the sort of person who truly, genuinely worries about home games in December against teams like Loyola of Maryland. And with good reason, as I have seen Kentucky lose almost every type of game under almost every type of condition. But last night, as they were introducing the players, I was suddenly hit with an enormous wave of confidence. For the first time in my life, I had this feeling that it was Kentucky's night, and I almost felt sorry for the doomed Kansas players who, I was convinced, had no chance.
I don't know where this feeling came from. Maybe my subconscious has been analyzing the games all year, and had figured out that KU couldn't score enough to beat UK. If so, my subconscious is pretty smart, because the Cats truly outclassed Kansas in the first half. Terrence Jones was quite effective at guarding Kansas's All-American Thomas Robinson one-on-one, which freed up Anthony Davis to cause defensive havoc all over the place. And because Kansas wasn't used to Kentucky's pace, the Cats repeatedly beat the Jayhawks down the floor for easy possessions that turned into dunks or free throws. The Cats even showed they could shoot in a dome, with Marquis Teague (!) hitting a three-pointer, and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist making a long jump shot. At halftime the Cats led 41-27, and they appeared completely dominant.
Number3Son and I enjoyed it very much. For this game, Number3Son was using little cardboard figures to symbolize Kentucky and Kansas, and he moved them around on a table depending on the score. By halftime, the UK figure had opened up a nice gap on the KU figure.
Of course, we knew Kansas would come back, and they did. In the second half, they defended UK as well as any team has defended the Cats all year. They held Anthony Davis to 1-10 shooting for the game, and they did a great job of keeping Kentucky off of the offensive glass. Calipari had Kentucky holding the ball deep into the shot clock, so the Cats were no longer getting the transition opportunities they had enjoyed in the first half. But unfortunately for the Jayhawks, they were running out of time. Kentucky was in a slow-down mode, and for the most part Kansas was not able to pressure Teague into the sort of mistakes other point guards have made against the Jayhawks. And Kentucky still had Doron Lamb, who ended up with 22 points to lead all scorers, and who hit some enormously important three-point shots in the second half. But most of all, Kentucky was playing ferocious defense, and Kansas doesn't have the type of offense that can generate a lot of points in a hurry against a good defense.
Kansas eventually got to within 63-57 with 1:05 to go, but then UK's defense slammed the door. MKG made a spectacular defensive play -- coming out of nowhere to block what appeared to be a wide open layup by Kansas's Tyshawn Taylor. With 24 seconds left, the Cats were up 65-59, and Elijah Johnson -- Kansas's best three-point shooter -- appeared to be open behind the arc for a shot to make it a one possession game. Suddenly, in the last great play he would ever make for the Cats, Anthony Davis came swooping toward Johnson -- startling him so badly that he jumped and landed without taking a shot. Traveling. Kentucky's ball. And after Lamb had made two more free throws to put Kentucky up 8 with 17 seconds to go, I told Number1Son (who had heard the yelling and wandered into the rec room) to go upstairs and get his mom, so we could all watch the celebration together.
Kansas is a great team -- an almost perfect example of the sort of defense-first, battle-to-the-death-for-every-rebound philosophy that dominates most of college basketball these days. But Kentucky, as they did so often this year, not only matched Kansas's defensive intensity, they also showed a wonderfully old-fashioned ability to play offense. At halftime, the Cats were on pace to score 80 points, and they might have made it if Calipari hadn't taken the air out of the ball. (He did this all year when he was in the lead, and I never really understood why, but it worked every time except during the final of the SEC tournament, so I'm confident he had a good reason.) In the end, this season featured some great offensive teams (like Indiana and UNC), and some great defensive teams (like KU and U of L), but no other team showed an ability to play both offense and defense like Kentucky.
Davis had only 6 points, but he had 16 rebounds, 6 blocks, and three steals, and he was a worthy choice for Most Outstanding Player in the Final Four. Lamb, Number3Son's favorite player (and perhaps mine as well) had 22 points on 7-12 shooting. Marquis Teague had 14 points, Jones had 9 points (and 7 rebounds), MKG had 11 points (and 6 rebounds), and Darius Miller (playing his 152d game for the Cats), had 5 points and 6 rebounds. It was the consummate team effort from the consummate team.
Part Two: What It Means for College Basketball.
A paradigm shifted last night. Up until game time, you could still hear Serious Basketball Commentators stating that Cal's "one-and-done" philosophy wouldn't work on the Big Stage of a National Title Game. This was an absurd argument, as Cal would have won the title in both 1996 (with UMass) and 2008 (with Memphis), had he not run into two of the best teams of the last 20 years, and last year, UK lost to UConn in the Final Four by only one point.
But now we have commentators who act as though Cal and his magical pipeline of talent will dominate college basketball for years to come. This is also absurd. Even if a team did get the number one recruiting class every year, not all such classes are created equal. Anthony Davis and John Wall were both the number one recruits in their years, but Davis's skills are better suited to a one-and-done tournament where teams can control the tempo and prevent a player like Wall from getting to the rim. You also need the right combination of talents to go all the way. For example, you need a real three-point shooting threat like Lamb, and you probably need guys who can make free throws. Not every collection of recruits will fit this bill. And besides, this was not a Fab Five situation where UK was starting a team of freshmen. Jones, Lamb, and Miller all went to the Final Four last year, and their experience was critical to UK's success. Finally, you need to avoid injuries and have guys who are willing to play together as a team.
In short, while Calipari has had a recruiting advantage in recent years -- and has used that advantage with great success -- there is no reason to believe that the basic principles of basketball have changed. In fact, one of the great things about Cal is that he hasn't just bought into the recruiting hype -- he understands that a winning team has to play the same type of fundamentally sound basketball that great teams have always played. In time, most other people will figure that out as well. But there will be a lot of silly rhetoric in the meantime.
Part Three: What It Means for Kentucky
For some time now, in reflecting on this season and this team, I've been thinking of the words of Bruce Springsteen:
Everything dies, baby, that's a fact
But maybe everything that dies
Someday comes back.
This has been a great season for famous old programs that were thought to be dead and buried. Indiana had a great year, and ESPN projects them as the number 1 team for next season. North Carolina State went to the Sweet 16, and some people are predicting that they could win the ACC next year. But perhaps no program has had a more remarkable turnaround than our beloved Wildcats. Only three years ago, the Cats were coming off of an appearance in the NIT -- and that was only the latest in a series of failures going back to their last Final Four back in 1998. UNC, Duke, UConn, Michigan State, Florida, Kansas -- these were the big powers of the last decade, and we could do little but watch and complain.
But that complaining, hectoring, demanding rage for which the Big Blue Nation is famous turned out to be just what the doctor ordered. Afraid of their own fans, the folks at UK finally took a chance on John Calipari -- a guy who had been effectively blackballed by the so-called "blue blood" programs, forced to ply his trade at UMass and Memphis. And that made all the difference.
As UK has gotten better, we've seen more and more wailing and gnashing of teeth from the fans of other programs, who decry our "win at all costs" mentality and who long for the more innocent days of the past. But everyone has his own past, and Kentucky's version of basketball history is different from most people's.
That Coach who yells at his players, feuds with the media, and is quick to spot slights from rivals and NCAA officials alike? He's not that different from Adolph Rupp, who had many of the same traits and was involved in many similar controversies (recruiting, grades, worries about "overemphasis") decades ago.
And those players with their dreams of NBA success? They're poor kids, for the most part, trying to make a better life for themselves and their families -- just like so many Kentucky legends of the past who came from the hills and hollows of eastern Kentucky, seeking to escape generations of poverty.
Most people in the national media don't understand the Kentucky program, because they never look beyond Lexington. Yes, there are a lot of rich folks who support the program, because Lexington has always been relatively rich, and those people play a disproportionate role in everything that happens in Kentucky. But the whole point of the UK basketball program -- the whole reason that it ties the Commonwealth together with such intense fervor -- is that no matter how unfair the rest of life may be, the basketball court is a place where honor, and hard work, and talent -- from whatever background -- will be rewarded. (Unfortunately, UK did not always apply this principle to African-American athletes. But I think everyone now realizes how horrible that was.)
For decades, poor kids have committed themselves to basketball as a means to better their lives. And for decades, the Powers That Be have worried that all of this passion and effort will somehow violate "the spirit of the game." But in Kentucky, we believe that the spirit of the game is that kids like Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist should have the chance to win, and win, and win -- that as long as you play within the rules (not the "spirit of the rules," which is a construct made up by rich people, but the actual rules written down so average people can see them), you deserve all the success you can achieve.
Bear Bryant (who knew Adolph Rupp very well) took this dream down to Alabama, and it is not surprising that the Alabama football fans are the only major fan base on the Internet who has consistently shown great kindness and support for the UK basketball fans. The Crimson Tide suffered through dark times before hiring Nick Saban, just as we suffered in the pre-Cal era. But both fan bases believed in their tradition, and both were rewarded this season.
One of the best things about a living tradition is that you constantly find echoes of the past in the present. And it says a great deal about Cal, and his strong instinct for the Kentucky Way of doing things, that when the big bus pulled into Rupp Arena, and the players were announced to over 20,000 fans one by one, that Anthony Davis -- the potential legend, the Naismith Player of the Year, the NBA Number One Draft Pick -- wasn't the last one named. It wasn't Kidd-Gilchrist, or Teague, or Lamb, or Jones -- none of Calipari's star recruits. The last player to get off the bus, the one who actually carried the trophy into the arena, with the SuperDome net hanging around his neck, was Darius Miller. Our native son. Only the second Kentuckian (after Darrell Griffith) to be Mr. Basketball, win the High School Championship, and win the NCAA Tournament. The kid who came to play for Billy Gillispie, who stuck with the program through thick and thin, who took all sorts of grief from Kentucky fans, and who eventually accomplished everything we wanted for him. Miller got the biggest cheers, as he should have. Because he is living proof that as long as Kentucky is true to itself -- as long as the fans and the young people of Kentucky care about the program, and work to keep it on top -- the tradition will continue. And we'll have more nights like last night.
Finally, a personal note. I will miss all of these kids enormously. For the past five months, they have been a source of constant joy to me. There never was a season like this one: three wins over Florida, two over Louisville, two over Kansas, wins over North Carolina and Indiana. Never did I worry that they wouldn't do their best, or play selfishly, or not play as a team. Six victories in the NCAA's -- without ever trailing in the second half. So much fun. So many memories. Fans like me are sometimes referred to as "supporters." But this year, as in so many others, the team supported me a lot more than I supported them -- carrying me through the bleakest months of the year, and giving me a championship in the spring. I thank them, I honor them, and I wish them all the best.
Kentucky finishes with a record of 38-2. They went 16-0 in the SEC regular season, and were the runner-up in the SEC Tournament. They won the NCAA South Region, defeated Louisville in the National Semi-Final, and beat Kansas to win their eighth NCAA Championship, and their first since 1998. A new group of Wildcats will take the floor next November, and it will all start again. But until that time, and for many years to come, we can remember one of the best seasons in UK history.